The original legislation that created the Chickamauga portion of the National Military Park authorized the purchase of “7,600 acres, more or less.” Fiscal reality reduced that to about 5,300 acres, and while the battlefield today may seem complete, there are parts of the historic battleground that remain outside the park’s reach. One such area is the scene of the fighting around Reed’s Bridge on September 18.
Much like the opening rounds at Gettysburg, Chickamauga opened with a small Union cavalry force holding off a much larger Confederate advance. Unlike Brig. Gen. John Buford’s troopers in Pennsylvania, however, Col. Robert H. G. Minty and his 973 men had no Federal infantry hurrying to their support. Minty fought a day-long delaying action against Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson’s division of Confederate infantry, and, in doing so, derailed the timely execution of Gen. Braxton Bragg’s plan to turn the Union army’s northern flank and crush it in the mountains of North Georgia. The terrain Minty defended still lies unprotected on the eastern threshold of the park.
Minty was expecting trouble on the morning of September 18, and just before dawn sent out two large patrols. A battalion of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, 100 strong, was sent southeast toward Leet’s Tanyard, while a mixed force of similar size drawn from the 4th Michigan and 7th Pennsylvania rode due east toward Ringgold. The rest of the brigade stood to arms at dawn, but when nothing happened went about their regular morning fatigue duties. “Stable Call” was sounded, and the horses were fed and watered. There was even time for a leisurely breakfast and a quiet smoke, according to Sgt. James Larson of the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. The quiet interlude was interrupted about mid-morning when sharp firing broke out to the east.
Capt. Heber S. Thompson of the 7th Pennsylvania commanded the mixed battalion heading toward Ringgold that morning. The troopers collided with Confederate infantry advance near Peavine Creek, where Thompson managed to delay the Rebel advance for some time. Confederate Capt. William Harder, leading Company D of the 23rd Tennessee, recalled that the initial contact broke out near Peeler’s Mill and that the Federal skirmishers retired slowly westward. It was at this moment, just after the initial collision, that Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest arrived with his small mounted force and quickly assumed control over the advance.
Forrest’s arrival marked a curious moment in the course of the day’s events. He was originally ordered to provide cavalry to lead both Johnson’s column and other Rebel forces farther south, but that mission went awry. When he did arrive, accompanied only by his escort and Martin’s Kentuckians, he brought with him no more than 200 troopers. Instead of using them for reconnaissance or maneuver, however, Forrest ordered them to dismount and reinforce the infantry skirmish line. Johnson had plenty of infantry already — more, in fact, than he needed. As later events would demonstrate, Forrest’s men could probably have been better used to threaten the Union flanks.
Minty, meanwhile, had not been idle. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. — perhaps thirty minutes before Forrest’s arrival — he reinforced Captain Thompson with two more battalions, one from the 4th Michigan and another from the 4th U.S. Regulars, plus a section of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery. Taking personal charge of the defense, Minty arrayed the dismounted cavalry in a strong defensive position along the crest of Peavine Ridge. Capt. Henry A. Potter, commanding Company H of the Michiganders, deployed his men on the left of the Pennsylvanians overlooking their old camp at Peeler’s Mill, while the 4th Regulars extended Thompson’s right. Minty’s forward line numbered about 600 men and two guns. What he could not know was that Johnson’s and Forrest’s combined strength numbered several thousand. Johnson, too, was operating largely in the dark. Unsure of the opposition he faced, Johnson deployed three of his four infantry brigades in one front line, holding one back in reserve. He also ordered the Southern artillery to engage Minty’s brace of artillery. Crossing Peavine Creek took some time, but when it reached the west bank, the Confederate infantry began to work around both exposed Federal flanks. After some spirited fighting and a short artillery exchange, Minty began a slow withdrawal toward the bridge.
As he pulled back, Minty sent couriers to Maj. Gens. Crittenden and Rosecrans, reporting the size and strength of the force he had encountered. One sign of movement especially worried Minty: a dust cloud to the northeast suggested that another Confederate column was heading toward Dyer’s Ford, the next crossing site north of Reed’s Bridge. Minty had only a small picket force there, and no additional troops to spare. If a strong Rebel force crossed at Dyer’s Ford, it could move unopposed down the west bank of the creek directly behind him, cutting off his brigade from the rest of the army. Accordingly, Minty also requested help from Col. John T. Wilder, who dispatched the better part of two regiments to help bolster the exposed position.
As Minty pulled back Johnson’s men pursued, with Forrest commanding the advance guard. The rest of Johnson’s Division followed at a supporting distance. Johnson kept his men in line of battle, which made for slow going as they negotiated the wooded and rolling terrain. The slow advance gave Minty the time he needed to fall back and establish a new defensive line near his campsite.
With his camp baggage already packed up and heading to the rear, Minty worked to carefully position his command. The 4th Michigan and 7th Pennsylvania were deployed north of the bridge, where Minty dismounted half of each command as skirmishers. The 4th Regulars were also divided. One squadron was sent with the two guns of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery to take up a position southwest of the bridge, beyond where the creek makes a sharp bend to the west. There, where a “bad ford” crossed the creek, the two guns were hidden in some brush, with the squadron of mounted Regulars in line behind them in support. The other two squadrons of the 4th Regulars were sent to a piece of high ground on the west side of the creek overlooking both the ford and the bridge.
About this time, Johnson’s Confederate infantry arrived to open the next act of the engagement. Once atop Peavine Ridge, Johnson realized he faced but a single brigade and moved to deploy his command for a full attack. His lead brigade under Col. John S. Fulton prepared to charge directly for the bridge, while the brigades of Brig. Gens. John Gregg and Evander McNair moved to the right and left, respectively. Brig. Gen. Jerome B. Robertson’s famous Texas Brigade —the first of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Virginia reinforcements to reach the field — remained in reserve. As the infantry moved into position, two batteries of Confederate artillery renewed their fire against the Yankees.
As the fighting recommenced, Forrest noticed other Federal troops to the south. It appears that he believed there was a guard for Minty’s camp somewhere upstream and decided to go after it. Forrest asked Johnson to loan him the use Lt. Col. Watt W. Floyd’s 17th Tennessee Infantry for this venture. When Johnson acquiesced, Forrest took the whole group, some 600 men, in search of the Union camp. According to Floyd, the column moved about one-half mile south, but “before we got in range, the enemy fled.”
While Forrest moved south, Johnson prepared to attack. Sometime around 2:00 p.m., Fulton’s men made straight for the bridge, hoping to seize it before the Federals escaped. They ran into stiff resistance from the Union skirmishers and the two hidden artillery pieces Minty had placed upstream. As Fulton’s men were faltering, Minty ordered the mounted elements of the 4th Michigan and 7th Pennsylvania to charge the oncoming Confederates, forcing some of them back in temporary confusion. The rest of the Rebel line, however, turned both of Minty’s flanks, forcing him to attempt a repeat of the morning’s disengagement and fall back across the creek.
This time, however, the withdrawal devolved into a bit of a scramble. Minty ordered the 4th Michigan over Reed’s Bridge, which was so rickety and narrow that the troopers had to cross in column of twos. Once across, the Michiganders dismounted and lined the west bank of the creek to cover the 7th Pennsylvania’s retreat. Once all were across, Minty withdrew the battery and lone squadron of the 4th U.S. back by the upstream ford. The two guns made it safely to the west bank and moved back to where the rest of the Regulars had been stationed earlier. They unlimbered again and went back into action. The last squadron of the 4th Regulars, acting as a rear guard, barely got away. Commanded by Lt .Wirt Davis, the two troops were preparing to cross at the ford when Davis noticed that the 7th Pennsylvania was jammed up at the bridge and Rebel infantry was fast closing in. Wheeling his command around, Davis delivered another mounted charge against the Confederates, who fell back just far enough to allow the 7th to finish crossing. With that sharp tactical success under his belt, Davis pulled his own men back across the structure. Davis and the last few troopers halted under fire and tore up the bridge railings and planks, hurling them into the creek and rendering the bridge temporarily unusable.
The men advancing in gray and brown showed equal audacity. According to Capt. Harder of the 23rd Tennessee, his men drove back the 4th Michigan’s skirmish line but could not get across the creek. Under heavy fire, Harder pushed his company forward and ordered his men to repair the bridge as best and as fast as they could. Tearing planks off the Reed house and barn, the bridge was hastily re-floored — despite the best efforts of Union sharpshooters.
Forrest arrived on the scene following his brief ride southward just as the repairs to the bridge were being finished. The cavalry leader congratulated Harder and his Tennesseans for their courage and proceeded to demonstrate a little daring of his own. Crossing the newly replanked bridge, Forrest rode to within 100 yards of the Union line, halted and surveyed it under fire before calmly trotting back to the waiting Confederates. The cool display of courage impressed Harder, who recalled that Forrest “halted, with his accustomed attentive and intentive [sic] manner, took in the situation of the whole line of the federals while discharge after discharge of grape and canister dashed by him.”
With the bridge repaired, Minty’s two guns were unable to prevent the rest of Fulton’s Brigade from crossing. Once on the west bank, the Rebels moved north about 400 yards and formed a line of battle facing the Union line from a distance of about 300 yards. While Fulton held the Yankees’ attention, Johnson attempted another flanking move, this time sending Forrest’s cavalry detachment and another infantry brigade west toward the ford used earlier by the Federal artillery. These Confederates succeeded in reaching the west bank, which threatened Minty’s southern flank and rendered his position untenable.
This new threat was developing when Minty received a report informing him that Col. John T. Wilder, who had been defending Alexander’s Bridge all day, was similarly outflanked. Wilder advised Minty he was falling back to Lee and Gordon’s Mills. Faced with potential encirclement, Minty had no choice but to withdraw. Riding west along the Reed’s Bridge Road toward Rossville, the Federal cavalry turned south on the Lafayette Road and moved to join Thomas Crittenden’s men near Lee and Gordon’s Mill. For the Rebels, it had been a long and tiring day. Nearly 100 men had been killed and wounded in the opening fight at Chickamauga.
Additional Confederate reinforcements arrived as Johnson’s men watched the last of Minty’s command retreat. The first on the scene was Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, who, although still suffering from his Gettysburg wound, was hurrying forward to take command of the column that included his Texas Brigade. As the senior officer, once on the scene Hood assumed command from Bushrod Johnson. The next and last reinforcement was the belated arrival of Brig. Gen. John Pegram’s cavalry brigade. After observing the fight at Alexander’s Bridge during the afternoon, Pegram’s troopers broke away at some point to move to join Forrest, crossing Chickamauga Creek at Fowler’s Ford. Although the distance could not have been more than two miles, it took Pegram several hours to negotiate its course, and as a result his men contributed almost nothing to either fight.